Why do some critics willingly go down the rabbit hole while others don’t?

03.05.10 8 years ago 25 Comments

Walt Disney Company

When I published my review last week for “Alice In Wonderland,” I intentionally didn’t read other reviews first.  I’ve certainly read a ton of them at this point, due in part to the way many of you kept throwing other reviews at me as a way of refuting my opinion on the film.  “But look! A.O. Scott liked it! And he’s smart!” Yes… yes, he is.  Looking at the Rotten Tomatoes page for the film, there are a number of smart critics who appear to have given the film a passing grade, although a close reading of many of those reviews would reveal a big of ambiguity as to just how much they actually enjoyed what they watched.  I actually considered running links to various reviews, both pro and con, but I don’t feel like attacking or nitpicking every individual reaction is something I want to start doing.  But I am fascinated by the general division here, and there is no denying that there is a fairly serious difference of opinion on this one.


Why does that happen?  Why are there some films where people seem to have a generally accepted middle-ground of opinion, and others where critics are driven to polar extremes?  I think “Alice” is a good case study for the question because, in this case, I can see where some of those battle lines have been drawn, and even if I disagree with the reasoning, I can understand what’s causing it.

There are many viewers who seem perfectly happy to simply bask in the familiar with each new Tim Burton film.  And if what you want is what you’ve already seen, “Alice” more than delivers that.  My complaints were not so much that I think he ballsed up an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s work, although he did, but more that there was nothing in this movie that I haven’t seen from Burton already.  I think he is enormously talented, but I think that talent is slowly ossifying, locked into a rigid set of expectations of what a “Tim Burton film” is supposed to be.

Although it’s not hilariously funny, there is some bitter truth in this sketch from College Humor that went up this week on their site:

One of the reasons Tim Burton broke through in the way he did was because of how truly unexpected his work was when we were first exposed to it.  “Edward Scissorhands” has got to be one of the strangest things to ever be released with the Fox logo in front of it, conceptually or visually, but at the time, it felt like Burton was finally finding his voice.  What would impress me at this point would be if he made a film that didn’t feel like he was refracting the same basic ideas and visual motifs, if he took a left turn that suddenly challenged him as much as his audience.

One of my friends told me that he was perfectly happy with the film because it featured Johnny Depp having a swordfight with Crispin Glover.  And while I think as a film fan, if that’s the level of fetishism that you walk into the theater with, that’s fine, as someone writing about film for a larger audience, that’s not enough.  There’s more electricity and danger in the first six minutes of Jim Jarmusch’s “Dead Man”, which just happens to be a scene between Johnny Depp and Crispin Glover, than in any interaction they have in Burton’s artificial, suffocating Wonderland, and the opening of “Dead Man” is actually about something.  There’s thematic heft to their exchange.

What really galls me is that Lewis Carroll was not a conventional writer in any way.  He was a mathematician, a man who was given to logic games and tumultuous torrents of language, and seeing his work jammed into a typical hero’s journey shape just plain feels wrong.  Someone scolded me the other night about my expectations for an adaptation of Carroll, but it goes to a larger question I have any time anyone fundamentally twists a piece of source material when adapting it.  If you aren’t going to honor what makes the original work special, then why adapt it at all?  When critic after critic offers up some variation on “the script is bad, but Wonderland and the CGI is neat,” then that seems to me to be a failure.  I could easily have written about my own disappointments and wrapped things up with a placating statement like, “I’m sure fans of Tim Burton will love this film, and kids will sit in front of it without complaining too much.”  But most kids will sit in front of almost anything, and especially something that’s candy-colored and in 3D and filled with monsters.  And most Tim Burton fans have proven to me in the last week that they literally don’t care what he makes anymore… they support the brand, sight unseen.  They are not willing to tolerate any critical conversation about his work at all.  It’s all or nothing to them, and if you’re not onboard, you are to be hated and insulted.  Period.  They don’t care if he can direct an action sequence.  They don’t care if his scripts all read like the same Mad Libs with different character names filled in.  They simply don’t care.

And I think many critics are simply shrugging their shoulders and saying, “Fine.  If you’re one of those people, then why should I argue?”  At that point, a review is barely a review, though.  It’s a synopsis.  Just write, “There is a new Johnny Depp/Tim Burton film out and it is exactly what you think it is,” and leave it at that.  You can read that sentence as a positive or a negative based on the trajectory you think that collaboration is currently following.

But I know I’m not alone on this.  I can’t be the only person who wants more out of this collaboration if it’s going to continue.  I can’t be the only one who thinks that they’re capable of more, and giving them a pass feels like a collapse of standards.  One of my favorite films of all time is Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil.”  The desktop wallpaper on my computer right now is a reproduction of the map from “Time Bandits.”  If there was a BluRay released tomorrow of “The Fisher King,” I would cancel my afternoon to revisit that film.  And the single best hour I spent last year talking film with anyone was the hour I spent with Terry Gilliam.  But even so… I can confess that I thought “The Imaginarium Of Dr. Parnassus” was undercooked, even at the script stage before Gilliam had to rework the film to account for the death of Heath Ledger.  I am greedy for the work of Gilliam, but that doesn’t mean that I look at it and see blinding perfection no matter what.  The major difference between Gilliam and Burton, of course, is that Gilliam has been marginalized by the system and has to scramble for every film, while Burton’s given the full support of the system, easily putting together $200 million for a film version of a story that has been filmed dozens of times before.

And that raises my last point.  There are so many different “Alice In Wonderland” movies already, and so many of them have just recently been released on home video again, that it makes me wonder what there is left to wring from the material by anyone, not just Burton.  I’d argue that there are few properties that have been filmed that many times with so few of the film versions actually being good.  Carroll did not write with movies in mind, thank god, and his work does not lend itself to dramatic interpretation.  “Alice” is almost always a stiff, and Burton’s is just the latest ship crashed on these particular rocks.  I don’t begrudge anyone who gives it a pass, since it almost seems at this point to defy any sort of critical reaction, but I’m disturbed at just how rabid people are about someone’s genuine and carefully considered rejection of what I see as creative bankruptcy.  What I hear most clearly in the angry responses posted in our comments section or on Rotten Tomatoes or in my e-mail is “STOP THINKING ABOUT IT.”

Stop thinking.  Turn off your brain.  The mantra of the modern movie age.

Not a chance.

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